On the spectrum of jazz challenges, Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” appears to lean toward the easy side. The title track of the eminent saxophonist and composer’s 1964 masterpiece Speak No Evil sits in a comfortable and utterly approachable medium swing. Its primary theme is a series of long tones outlining placid, open-vista harmony. Its bridge resembles something from the notebook of Thelonious Monk – a simple staccato motif that stairsteps up and down, each phrase defined by strategic accents.
Yet as often happens in the music of Wayne Shorter, things are not entirely what they seem. There are layers. The notes of the melody tell one story; the chords nudge the musicians someplace else, a realm where theory lessons are of limited value and instinct matters more than intellect. To thrive in this place, the musicians have to relinquish the tricks of the jazz trade – the lightning-fast bebop runs, the killer licks they lean on to navigate chord changes. The tune, simple though it may be, comes with its own specific language – a trait it shares with many of Shorter’s pieces. Before diving into the conversation, the improviser has to discover the specific quirks of the form, its textures and temperament. How challenging is this?
Even Shorter, who wrote the tune, sometimes struggles. He begins “Speak No Evil” by repeating a deftly tongued single note over and over, as though chopping his way into new territory. Shorter’s first few lines are simple declarations with a smidgen of blues in them – he’s not thinking about solo hijinks, he’s just trying to hang with the slalom course that is his creation. As he steers around tight curves, his lines coalesce into a kind of spontaneous lyricism – he’s singing through the horn, linking seemingly disconnected phrases into one (!) hauntingly memorable chorus. The subsequent soloists embrace his melody-first example when improvising: trumpeter Freddie Hubbard blows wistful then tender then fierce; pianist Herbie Hancock follows spry modal lines into quiet introspective corners.